X-COM one, X-COM all – it’s time to fight off those nasty aliens once again.
2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis Games’ revival of the beloved XCOM strategy series, was both wonderful and elegant. It not only managed to maintain the spirit and the addictiveness of the original XCOM games but it was slick, fast-paced and highly approachable to series newcomers.
However, its focus on streamlining the XCOM experience down to its core elements meant that a great deal of the complexity and variety of the originals were lost. For as great as it was, I couldn’t help wonder if an XCOM game with the depth of the first few entries would ever be made again or would it be deemed as not ‘mass market’ enough for today’s gaming audience.
However, for the sequel to the 2012 game, the somewhat confusingly and blandly-named XCOM 2, Firaxis promised to build in elements that were either omitted last time around or were completely new in order to move the series back towards the complexity of the original games. I’m happy to report that that’s what it delivered. Using most of the basics from XCOM: Enemy Unknown as a foundation, XCOM 2 expands the over-arching meta-game, greatly increases load-out and customisation options, ups level destructibility, reworks character classes and enemies, and adds procedurally generated maps, new mission objectives and even stealth gameplay.
To talk about everything that the game tweaks, expands and adds would be far beyond the scope of a short review but it’s safe to say that basically every change was made to address perhaps the biggest problem from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In the vanilla version of the game (the issue was somewhat addressed in its expansion, Enemy Within) many felt that too much emphasis was placed on defensive play in ground missions. It was almost always best to have your squad sit back in good cover and carefully lure enemies into a kill zone. Forging ahead was rarely a wise thing to do as encountered aliens could spawn in compromising positions and would normally instantly notice you upon you seeing them. XCOM 2 counters this by not only doing away with the irritating erratic spawning but by reworking itself to favour decisive, offensive play. Character classes have been retooled (most notably the sword-wielding Ranger class), time-limits put in place in most missions and a stealth mechanic added, all of which encourage aggression instead of sitting back and turtling in Overwatch.
There are positives and negatives to this approach. Ground missions move faster, feel more dynamic and are even more nerve-racking. However, because you’re all-but-forced to make haste up the field there’s a much greater likelihood that your troops will get flanked and savaged by your alien enemies. For all the expanded load-out, class and equipment options the game offers, you’ll still need to employ that same tactic yourself (especially on the harder difficulties) to have a good chance of hitting foes with any kind of accuracy. As a result it often feels that, despite all the changes from the last game, you’re still being funnelled down one punishing tunnel.
Some people may find this lost potential for multiple, viable approaches disappointing but that’s the XCOM way. Much like a game such as Dark Souls, a big part of the experience is figuring out what everything does and the most effective way to go about things. To paraphrase something that several people have said about the game, this will result in extreme low points along the way but they’ll be offset but incredibly high ones. A whole campaign can go unexpectedly down the drain within seconds but some smart (and sometimes lucky) actions in a key moment can turn everything around again. It wouldn’t be XCOM without that constant and suspenseful threat of failure.
Though not widely reported by the professional games press at launch, XCOM 2 is unfortunately blighted by a couple of technical issues. First of all, it hasn’t release with proper gamepad support. This is a completely bizarre move since this control method was not only was it a viable alternative to mouse and keyboard in XCOM: Enemy Unknown but the way XCOM 2 operations in no way precludes the use of one. To add insult to injury, the game does support Valve’s Steam controller; a move which may or may not be a ploy to get people to buy one of those single-stick monstrosities.
The second and more important problem is that many people including myself have been experiencing chugging frame rates even on high-end PCs, suggesting that the game was poorly optimised. Firaxis’ games have a reputation for launching with plenty of bugs but this goes far beyond the customary occasional glitches. For me, I found that dialling down some graphical features like anti-aliasing, screen space reflections and ambient occlusion at least brought the game to a playable frame rate. Coupled with the weirdly long loading times even on solid state hard drives, these performance issues are inexcusable, especially given that Firaxis forewent development on consoles versions in order to release XCOM 2 on PC first.
Since hopefully both of these problems will likely be fixed with patches in the near future I’m not factoring them in to my final judgement of the game but just be aware of them if you’re thinking of making a purchase in the coming days and weeks.
In the end, I can’t help but love XCOM 2. Call me a sucker for this series if you like but the game’s enthralling mix of strategy, management and drama keeps me coming back for more, no matter how much Commander difficulty is kicking my arse right now. Firaxis deserves a lot of credit for managing to keep the game true to the XCOM series and yet somehow providing a fresh and accomplished challenge.